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Domestic Abuse Bill

Volume 795: debated on Thursday 31 January 2019


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer to an Urgent Question asked in the other House yesterday.

“The landmark draft Domestic Abuse Bill, which we published last week, will help transform the response to these horrific crimes. It is aimed at supporting victims and their families and pursuing offenders, to stop the cycle of violence. The Bill will cement a statutory definition of domestic abuse that extends beyond violence to include emotional, psychological and economic abuse. It does not create new criminal offences in relation to domestic abuse, because those offences are already settled law—such as Section 18 GBH, coercive and controlling behaviour and even, in the saddest of cases, murder. The offences are all devolved.

In line with existing criminal law, the provisions of the draft Bill extend to England and Wales only. Contrary to the suggestion that may be in the honourable Member’s Question, there has been no change in the territorial application of the Bill compared with proposals in the Government’s consultation published last spring. This was made clear in the consultation paper and reflects the fact that the subject matter of the draft Bill is devolved in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

We are currently in discussion with the Scottish Government and the Northern Ireland Department of Justice about whether they wish to extend any of the Bill’s provisions to Scotland and Northern Ireland respectively. We are seeking to establish a Joint Committee of both Houses as soon as practicable to undertake pre-legislative scrutiny of the draft Bill, and I encourage all honourable Members to contribute to the process”.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Answer to the Urgent Question taken in the other place yesterday. The citizens of Northern Ireland deserve the same rights enjoyed by everyone else in the United Kingdom, but, today, they do not benefit from legislation on coercive control or stalking, and the controversy over the legality of abortion carries on. This is not right; it is unfair and it is unjust.

Can the Minister explain to the House why, in the absence of a functioning Executive in Northern Ireland, the Government are not proposing to extend the law as outlined in the draft Domestic Abuse Bill to Northern Ireland? Will she comment on suggestions that it is a device to prevent the importantly won freedoms and protections that I referred to earlier being debated and considered in Northern Ireland and extended there as part of the Bill?

The noble Lord will know that this is a devolved matter. Therefore, in order to for it be extended to Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Executive would have to request it through a legislative consent Motion. We know that this is a sensitive matter. We do not want to impose anything on Northern Ireland that is not already provided for. We respect the devolved process in Northern Ireland, which is why we have made the decision that we have. It has been a long-standing process in this area of law.

My Lords, this week 28 women will come from Northern Ireland to Britain to have health treatment that they should be able to get at home. They do so because the definition of abortion in Northern Ireland is so tightly drawn that it does not include cases of foetal abnormality, rape or incest. If they were to seek an abortion, they could face a sentence up to a maximum of life.

That is unacceptable. It is unacceptable that women in Northern Ireland do not enjoy the same human rights as those of us in the rest of the United Kingdom. Will the Minister comment on a Cabinet Office source being quoted in the Sunday Times as saying that they,

“foresaw the potential for the legislation to cause problems for the DUP”?

Does she think it right that the human rights of the women in Northern Ireland should be sacrificed to placate the DUP?

As I said to the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, this is nothing to do with placating the DUP; it is about the laws that are currently in place. Let me get back to what the Bill does: it tackles domestic abuse in all its forms. The matter is devolved. I recognise that it is an incredibly sensitive issue on all sides of the debate. Abortion legislation is devolved. I hope that a Northern Ireland Executive are established as soon as possible so that they can take on this legislation through a legislative consent Motion if they wish.

Could the Minister identify whether there are any provisions in this draft Bill which, in the Government’s opinion, are not appropriate for enactment in Northern Ireland? Could she also confirm that this draft legislation was announced in the Queen’s Speech in June 2017? Can she give the House some indication of when she thinks this legislation will be enacted?

The draft Domestic Abuse Bill will be discussed for pre-legislative scrutiny in a Joint Committee of both Houses. That process should take 12 weeks, and thereafter the Bill should be introduced. As to whether any provisions are not appropriate for Northern Ireland, it is a devolved matter through legislative consent—as I have said. Northern Ireland can take up the provisions in the Bill, and that would be the process.

My Lords, it took three attempts yesterday to get a response from the Minister on the absence from the draft Bill of any measure to address the point made in the original consultation document—that insecure immigration status may also impact on a victim’s decision to seek help—and then the Minister’s answer left us none the wiser. Could the Minister now give us a clearer explanation why the draft Bill does not have any measure to address the problems faced by this particularly vulnerable group of women who are of great concern to organisations on the ground? Could she assure us that she will look at this issue further?

The Bill does not differentiate between the types of women who might suffer abuse, but looks at how we treat the abuse itself. The noble Baroness will probably know that there is a destitute domestic violence concession, which is available to support people who may otherwise be forced to remain in a relationship with an abusive partner on whom they are financially dependent. I look forward to discussing those issues with the noble Baroness when the Bill comes to this House, as I am sure that she will be in her place challenging me.

My Lords, I asked the noble Baroness the Minister, Lady Vere, about the jurisdiction of this Bill as it applied to migrant women when it arose at Questions last week. I was heartened by her openness to consider the possibility of extending jurisdiction during the pre-legislative scrutiny stage. As my noble friend Lady Barker said, there is a whole group of British citizens to whom this legislation may not apply—women and men in Northern Ireland. Can the Minister confirm that the Government will be similarly willing to consider including the plight of every citizen in the pre-legislative scrutiny stage of the Bill?

The noble Baroness will know that the ETJ will cover offences committed by a UK citizen against someone abroad. I am certainly happy to have a conversation with the noble Baroness on extending the ETJ. I do not want to speak for my noble friend, but I am not sure that she would have committed to extending it.

My Lords, I am the chairman of a forced marriage commission. Do the Government recognise that in forced marriages there is often domestic abuse, that the many victims of forced marriage who suffer domestic abuse need special care, and that the current refuges for them are not necessarily all that satisfactory?

The noble and learned Baroness is absolutely right; I have seen this for myself. I have seen people who enter into a marriage—not necessarily a forced one—and have no leave to remain. They cannot speak English, and their passports have been taken from them. I absolutely recognise the point that the noble and learned Baroness makes, and look forward to discussing it during the passage of the Bill.

My Lords, the Bill is very welcome; it has taken a long time to come to us. Will the Minister confirm that, when it is passed, the Istanbul convention will be ratified? In the past she has said both that it would be and that it is a very narrow Bill.

I will not only confirm that but thank the noble Baroness for all the work she has done on this. She has challenged me on this for probably the past three years. I hope that she and I together will get there.

In the context of this draft Bill, can the Minister confirm that she welcomes contributions from noble Lords who want direct rule in Northern Ireland?

That would be a matter for each noble Lord to articulate. We do not wish to see direct rule in Northern Ireland; we wish for an Executive to be re-established. It would be a terribly retrograde step to go back to direct rule in Northern Ireland. I think that the point the noble Lord is making is about imposing law in Northern Ireland without legislative consent—and we do not wish to do that.

My Lords, I very much recognise the sensitivity of the issues mentioned by the Minister, and I am also a long-time supporter of devolution. But does the Minister recognise the bemusement of many, that in the greatest issue facing this country at the moment, Brexit, we have come to an impasse upon the insistence that there should be no difference between Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom, yet on occasion after occasion, as in this case, Ministers come to this Dispatch Box and tell us that we cannot have the same laws in the Province as on the British mainland? Does the Minister see the paradox contained in that presentation?

The noble Lord might point out that in some ways this is a paradox, but in other ways it is because we respect the devolutionary process for Northern Ireland, and therefore we would not want to impose laws on the people of Northern Ireland that they did not wish to take. However, we hope in this situation that they might wish to take this up through legislative consent.